An Orderly Transition : Christian Brothers Winery Enters a New Era Under the Heublein Banner

IN THE PROCESS of passing judgment on a bottle of Christian Brothers 1985 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($9), not long ago, I noted the wine's jewel-ruby color, the almost-berry scent of its 100% Cabernet breed and the restraint of the Limousin oak incense of its bouquet. This happy combination stirred me to applaud wine maker Tom Eddy's decision to refrain from bottling this wine until it had reached its peak of maturity by spending 18 months in French barrels.

The excellence of Christian Brothers' product was hardly going unnoticed. Within days, on May 17, a newspaper account chronicled the sale of the Christian Brothers winery and sales organization to Heublein Inc., a subsidiary of the British firm, Grand Metropolitan PLC. Although the selling price was not divulged at the time, speculation among industry sources has pegged it at about $150 million, which would make it the largest winery sale in U.S. history.

The purchase agreement included the historic Greystone cellars in St. Helena as well as about 1,200 acres of prime Napa Valley vineyards (from which the impressive 1985 Cabernet had been made). Also changing hands with those properties was the Mont La Salle Vineyards, from which is produced Christian Brothers Brandy, a product that accounts for more than 25% of the American brandy market.

Heublein, which already owned the historic Napa Valley wineries Inglenook and Beaulieu, and Almaden as well, thus became the nation's second-largest wine and spirits company. It also markets such major brands as Smirnoff vodka, Black Velvet Canadian whiskey and Cuervo tequila, but until now it has purveyed no brandy. In acquiring this new collection under the Christian Brothers marketing aegis, Robert Furek, president and CEO of Heublein, said that the acquisition represents "outstanding additions to our brand portfolio."

That ubiquitous word acquisition is of more than slight significance here. Heublein itself was an acquisition of Grand Metropolitan PLC's International Distillers and Vintners Ltd., of London, in 1987.

When Richard Maher arrived in June of 1986 as the head of the new Christian Brothers sales organization (the religious order had purchased the Fromm & Sichel sales organization from the House of Seagram in 1983), he owned an enviable track record in merchandising, having skyrocketed Beringer out of the doldrums where it had dwelt following its sale to Nestle Wine World in 1971. He was lured away to head Sterling for Seagram in 1984. In the invitation to head the Christian Brothers sales program, Maher saw at once the need to innovate, revitalize the entire wine program, and add the glamour of international import connections.

Tom Eddy had come aboard as wine maker in 1984 and thrived in the full support Maher supplied. New-image wines, new cooperage, expensive French oak and still more--all of it was in place, beautiful to behold with the re-opening of Greystone in June, 1987. The Brothers enhanced their collection that year by adding Cognac Otard, one of the finest of France, predating Hennessy, housed in the castle where Francois I was born. Maher added the Masi fine Italian wines of Veneto, super-value Orlando wines of South Australia's Barossa Valley, Gonzalez Byass Spanish sherries (including the world renowned Tio Pepe), the loveliest of Loire Muscadet wines from the Marquis de Goulaine, Quail Ridge of the Napa Valley, and just months ago the distinguished Champagne Lanson of Reims, the third oldest house in the Champagne trade. Now that is a collection to acquire! No wonder Heublein, backed up by the coffers of Grand Met, was pleased to offer the $150 million.

NOW, HOW DOES IT all affect consumers and wine lovers like you and me? (Some of us reacted with jaundiced regards when wineries such as Raymond, Chateau St. Jean, Ridge, Mihaly or St. Clement were sold to Japanese interests.) It turns out that the new owners have ample respect for the traditions that established each of those wineries.

Our wine worlds are expanding, with competitive marketing expertise bringing to our market and our tables more dazzling delights than ever. And as result of the sale, David Brennan, president of the Christian Brothers, says the educational order now has millions of dollars "to give the highest priority to (our) educational works"--meaning the 11,000 Christian Brothers teaching in 1,600 schools in 80 countries around the world.

Discussing Christian Brothers brings to mind my last visit to Robert, the 11th Marquis de Goulaine, and a luncheon with him in his French castle last June. After touring the fascinating and beautiful butterfly farm that is attached like a greenhouse to the stone fortress walls of the 12th-Century castle, we climbed a circular stone staircase to the grand salon for our meal. Robert's anticipation was evident as he indicated what wines we would be tasting; we were about to compare French and California wines, including his own.

"Taste the difference," he said. "That's the salt of life." This while we were sipping his own Muscadet blush wine, an innovation in the Loire. It emerged from his own white wine from the Melon de Bourgogne-Muscadet grape, plus a hint of grenache --just off-dry and with at least as much charm as the incandescent butterflies ornamenting the bottle's label. Watch for it in this new Heublein-Christian Brothers collection. Meanwhile, there's the Goulaine Muscadet at $7, and a finer aged sur lie , the Black Label, for $9.

AS A POSTSCRIPT, I would hope to activate the anticipation of your taste buds for the Masi 1980 Amarone Classico ($15), a distinctive Italian red wine of great depths, one that mingles scents of rose petals with intriguing hints of tar. Yes, tar--and it's delightful, especially with cheeses.

And how long has it been since you've tasted Tio Pepe ($9.85), that incomparable Spanish Amontillado, with tapas, salted almonds, olives and shrimp?

I tasted all the Lanson Champagnes with Pierre Lanson when he was here a few weeks ago and, interestingly, most enjoyed the least expensive. The Black Label Brut, non-vintage ($18), is prestige pouring and a substantial value as well.

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